Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Mid-Atlantic Managers Further Restrict Bycatch of River Herring and Shad

River herring using a fish ladder. Photo credit: Greg Wells.

The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council moved Wednesday to sharply reduce the amount of river herring and shad that can be killed by the trawling vessels targeting Atlantic mackerel, an important step in the recovery of these important but imperiled little fish.

The council voted to limit the bycatch of river herring and shad to 89 metric tons, a greater than 60 percent reduction from the previous level.

This is a strong indication that the council recognizes the need to limit the number of these fish being wastefully killed at sea by industrial trawlers. The first limits on the incidental catch – or bycatch – of river herring and shad were voted into place last June, but the limits appeared to be too high to provide incentive for the fishing fleet to reduce the bycatch. The mid-Atlantic council regulates fishing in federal waters off the coasts of seven states from North Carolina to New York.

River herring and shad populations are at historic lows due to a combination of overfishing at sea and dams in rivers, where they migrate each spring to spawn. While millions of taxpayer dollars are going to improve fish habitat in streams, scientists estimate that some 3.8 million river herring are killed at sea as bycatch each year and that this is likely undermining the effort to recover these species.

River herring and shad are among the small, schooling prey species collectively known as forage fish, which play a vital role in the marine food web. The mid-Atlantic council also took action on other forage species including mackerel and butterfish.

The council enacted large reductions—roughly 50 percent—to the allowable catch of Atlantic mackerel. The mackerel catch has dropped sharply since 2006 and while the scientific assessment of the mackerel population is incomplete, there are strong indications that the species is in trouble and that the risk of overfishing would be high if catch limits were not lowered.

The outlook for butterfish, another forage species, is much better thanks to wise actions years ago to increase that population. An aggressive rebuilding plan has worked and the council voted to expand fishing on this recovered species—a good example of the progress that can come with the conservation measures of the nation’s law on saltwater fishing in federal waters, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.


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